I got an inkling of BBC director general Tony Hall’s decision to get rid of Jeremy Clarkson in advance, when I spoke to him at the Enders Analysis media conference in London last week.
Hall was there with one mission: To NOT answer questions about Clarkson and Top Gear. Yet after he finished his speech from the podium, the very first question from the audience was, basically, “are you going to fire Jeremy Clarkson?”
In a room full of London’s most important media execs — CEOs from all the major cable channels and a ton of media buyers and bank analysts — it was the only thing people wanted to hear him talk about.
The host asked that we refrain from asking about Clarkson. Hall’s investigation into Clarkson for allegedly punching a BBC producer who failed to give him a hot steak dinner was ongoing, and Hall had not reached a decision yet.
Then the microphone came to me. “My question was also about Clarkson,” I said feebly, trying to imply that now that my question had already been asked, the mic should move on to someone else. The host suggested I ask anyway, so I came up with this subterfuge to “not” ask about Clarkson:
“You’re the manager of a huge media organisation,” I said. “I’m the manager of a small one, about a dozen people. Perhaps I can get some management advice from you: If one of your staff punches another colleague, do you think it is best to keep them or fire them?”
People laughed politely. Hall replied, “You should gather the facts from the people concerned before you make your decision and that’s exactly what I’m doing.” Frankly, he looked bored of talking about Clarkson.
That was what struck me most. Hall is actually in the middle of a huge defence of the BBC. The government is considering restructuring and perhaps cutting the TV licence fee — the tax on which the BBC’s funding depends. The fee raises £3.7 billion a year for the BBC. Once again, he is facing some uncomfortable questions about why it is that one of the world’s biggest, best media brands can’t stand on its own two feet without the help of the taxpayers who are forced to fund it whether they watch it or not.
That fight could cost Hall and the BBC many, many millions more than the end of Top Gear ever will. (Top Gear is estimated to generate as much as £50 million in global TV rights revenues.)
So from that perspective, Clarkson wasn’t helping. Why should we pay a tax to a company that has a lucrative contract with a rich, rude man who employs a camera crew to film him using the n-word?
Clarkson can only have been a distraction for Hall at a time when he only has one job: Preserve the BBC, and secure its funding. Clarkson’s revenue is barely a rounding error in the fight over the TV licence fee.
The fact that Hall looked bored of the issue, just a few days after the alleged punch, spoke volumes — at least in hindsight. Here was a man who had previously gone to bat to defend Clarkson and keep him in his job. And Clarkson had once again embarrassed him in front of London’s media elite. (Clarkson also allegedly managed to add some anti-Irish racism into the fight as well.)
OK, so my part in Clarkson’s downfall was not a huge one. It was trivial. But from Hall’s perspective, it was yet another drop in an ever-filling bucket. The most important executive at the BBC had his entire mission derailed for more than a week by a never-ending tidal wave of questions about his least-savvy on-air personality.
You can see, from that perspective, why this decision did not go Clarkson’s way.
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